|Good news for the New Year: the new book A Perfect Mess , challenges our deeply held conviction (and consequent source of guilt) that order and neatness are virtues always to be prized. On the contrary, Eric Abrahamson, a professor of management at Columbia Business School, and David H. Freedman, a business and technology writer, believe that various forms of mess and disorder can be far less harmful than we’ve been led to believe. The thesis of their book is that people and organizations are at their best when they’ve achieved an interesting mix of messiness and order. The writers assert that some degree of randomness in any system, from advanced scientific experimentation to running a home, makes it more effective.|||
This makes intuitive sense, if only because some level of randomness is integral to just about everything, despite our often-misguided efforts to tame it. Welcoming more of that randomness into our lives invites greater flexibility, generates serendipitous connections, and can even save time. Poking gentle but persuasive fun at the legions of professional organizers plying their trade to corporations and harried homeowners, the writers demonstrate how, for instance, a messy desk can be a more effective prioritizing system than a meticulous filing system that often makes it more difficult to find a particular document than if it were in a familiar “pile.” Since a messy desk tends to reflect the way a person naturally thinks and works, those various piles often represent an informal system far more efficient and flexible than a filing cabinet could produce.
This is a serious book, though written in a lively and accessible style. In making their argument, the writers discuss various sorts of mess – in this case knowingly imposing their own system of order on their topic - and tackle messiness historically as well as across domains, extending their analysis to businesses large and small, to politics local and beyond, to traffic – speed bumps and jaywalkers vs. carefully regulated flows of traffic –even to the war on terror, in each case demonstrating how a tolerable lack of conventional order works to improve rather than impede results. Abrahamson and Freedman aren’t advocating total anarchy, nor do they sneer at sensible levels of neatness and order. (They even include a section on strategies for effective “mess management” that most of us already employ but tend to discount.) But they do remind us that too much attention to order can be counter-productive (are you tempted to spend more time picking up and organizing your kids’ toys than playing with them?). Our brains, after all, evolved to function in a messy world. This book cautions that when we insist on thinking only in neat, orderly ways, we may be holding our minds back from doing what they do best.